For the longest time, The Deer Hunter was one of those movies that I knew I should watch, but never got around to doing so, that is until my father essentially forced me to sit down and watch it like I was deliberately insulting him for putting it off for so long. I imagine that many others have similar experiences with other films.
I write today as a happy man because my dad eventually sat me down to watch this epic film. (Well, the film made me incredibly depressed, but you get the idea.) I now consider The Deer Hunter as one of America’s better war films. So does AFI, who placed it at number 53 on their list of the 100 greatest American films of all time. I guess my dad knows a thing or two. (Don’t get cocky, Paul.)
The Deer Hunter is a beast of a film, clocking in at over three hours and covering some of the darkest themes out there. Though it mostly enwraps itself in a meditative state (which holds some of Robert De Niro’s finest work), it quickly moves to bouts of grandiose violence like something out of Grindhouse. It’s powerful, subtle, and everything in between.
And then there’s the Russian roulette scene, easily the most famous scene in the movie (only rivaled by the other Russian roulette scene near the end of the film). Though having seen the movie many times at that point when I first watched it with him, my father made some sounds of agony during that scene that I still remember to this day. I can’t say I blame him — I was doing the exact same thing! I have an image of De Niro maniacally laughing as he pulls the trigger seared into my brain.
One cannot examine the Russian roulette scene without mentioning its criticisms. There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about the legitimacy of such a Russian roulette game taking place during the Vietnam War. Those that covered the war have noted that not a single case of the Vietcong using Russian roulette on POWs was ever documented. Peter Arnett, who received the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war, said “the central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.” Director Michael Cimino later stated that he had news clippings from abroad that confirmed the use of Russian roulette during the war, though he never specified which articles he was referring to.
…And More Controversy
The film and the scene of interest also came under fire for its apparent one-sided view of the war, many calling its depiction of the Vietnamese quite egregious. People have gone back and forth on this issue since the film premiered back in 1978. One of the more infamous examples was when Jane Fonda called the film racist despite admitting that she hadn’t seen the film.
Many foreign bodies also spoke out against The Deer Hunter and more specifically the Russian roulette scene, leading to walk-outs at the 29th Berlin International Film Festival in 1979.
Calling this scene a “lightning rod” is a bit of an understatement.
Roger Ebert’s point of view is enlightening, and also expresses a feeling shared by many:
…it is the organizing symbol of the film: Anything you can believe about the game, about its deliberately random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply to the war as a whole. It is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes any ideological statement about the war superfluous.
I truly identify with those that have a differing opinion on the matter; there are other extremely valid ways to interpret this in-your-face scene. The Deer Hunter is a tough film to swallow; it pulls you along without a care for your disposition in a way that is undeniably shocking. It’s all in service of one idea: war is Hell. That’s not necessarily a unique perspective, but combined with the particulars of the film, I tend to believe The Deer Hunter and the Russian roulette scene take on a meaning that defies what many find troubling about it.
From the film’s eerily accurate representation of the steel mills in 1960’s Pittsburgh to a wonderfully extended Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony, The Deer Hunter is a big ol’ hunk of Americana; it’s a deeply American story that wants to express the effects of PTSD, the loss of innocence that comes with war, and the unnecessary degradation of morality that comes from foolish acts of violence by the United States.
Although Cimino and others have explained that the film isn’t explicitly anti-war, that sentiment is right there on the screen. As we see later, Christopher Walken’s Nick is lost after what happened to him in the war; nothing can save him. That along with the brutal hardship that everyone else faces after the war shows how mindless and pointless war can become on an individual level, forcing some to play games of violent chance to have any feelings at all. War brings out the worst in all of us, turning us into savage animals, unstable martyrs, self-doubting internalists, or a combination of the three. We see both the slow creep and upfront barbarity of inhumanity told through the opposing forces in this depiction of the Vietnam War. Granted, the film doesn’t take the time to empathize with the Vietnamese characters, and that is absolutely worth interrogating. I still have very mixed feelings about this aspect.
On a technical level, Cimino walks a line between being up close and personal with the actors and stepping back to soak everything in, allowing you to look deeply into the expressions of De Niro and Walken in real-time as you see the barrel of the gun slowly uncoil. It’s unbearably terrifying, and also undoubtedly human. The juxtaposition of a senseless game of chance and overwhelming feeling hits a raw nerve and keeps tapping at it. This scene tells you all you need to know about why De Niro and Walken are some of the best to ever do it.
My father certainly agrees with me here. The scene was so intense for his date at the theater back in 1978 that she got up and left…and then proceeded to break up with him when he refused to leave with her! (I guess some movies are just too good to walk away from.) Don’t worry, it all worked out in the end: his next girlfriend eventually became his wife. Without the Russian roulette scene being as intense as it is, I wouldn’t be here to talk about its merits forty years later. Thanks, Michael Cimino!
As the film celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, take a moment to watch one of the most finely crafted, if still slightly troubling moments in cinematic history.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on The Deer Hunter? Comment down below!
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